Greek Gods, Myths, and Legends

An Introduction to Greek Mythology

Atlas holding world
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Say "ancient history" to a stranger and she is likely to think "endless wars, timelines to memorize, and broken heaps of stone ruins," but remind her that the topic includes Greek mythology and her eyes will light up. The stories found in Greek mythology are colorful, allegorical, and include moral lessons for those who want them and puzzles to mull over for those who don't. They include profound human truths and the basics of western culture.

The basics of Greek mythology are the gods and goddesses and their mythical history. This Introduction to Greek Mythology provides some of these background features.

The Greek Gods and Goddesses

Greek mythology tells stories about gods and goddesses, other immortals, demigods, monsters or other mythical creatures, extraordinary heroes, and some ordinary people.

Some of the gods and goddesses are called Olympians because they ruled the earth from their thrones on Mount Olympus. There were 12 Olympians in Greek mythology, although several had multiple names.

In The Beginning...

In Greek mythology, "in the beginning was Chaos," and nothing more. Chaos was not a god, so much as an elemental force, a force made of itself alone and not composed of anything else. It existed from the beginning of the universe.

The idea of having the principle of Chaos at the beginning of the universe is similar to and perhaps a progenitor of the New Testament idea that in the beginning was "The Word".

Out of Chaos spun out other elemental forces or principles, like Love, Earth, and Sky, and in a later generation, the Titans.

Titans in Greek Mythology

The first few generations of named forces in Greek mythology were progressively more like humans: The Titans were the children of Gaia (Ge 'Earth') and Uranus (Ouranos 'Sky')—the Earth and Sky.

The Olympian gods and goddesses were children born later to one specific pair of Titans, making the Olympian gods and goddesses grandchildren of Earth and Sky.

The Titans and the Olympians inevitably came into conflict, called the Titanomachy. The battle was won by the Olympians, but the Titans did leave a mark on ancient history: the giant holding the world on his shoulders, Atlas, is a Titan.

The Origins of the Greek Gods

Earth (Gaia) and Sky (Ouranos/Uranus), who are considered elemental forces, produced numerous offspring: 100-armed monsters, one-eyed cyclops, and the Titans. Earth was sad because the very unpaternal Sky wouldn't let their children see the light of day, so she did something about it. She forged a sickle with which her son Cronus unmanned his father.

The love goddess Aphrodite sprang up from the foam from Sky's severed genitals. From Sky's blood dripping on Earth sprang the spirits of Vengeance (Erinyes) aka the Furies (sometimes known euphemistically as "the Kindly Ones").

The Greek god Hermes was the great-grandson of the Titans Sky (also known as Uranos/Ouranos) and Earth (Gaia), who were also his great-great grandparents and his great-great-great grandparents. In Greek Mythology, since the gods and goddesses were immortal, there was no limitation on child-bearing years and so a grandparent could also be a parent.

Creation Myths

There are conflicting stories about the beginnings of human life in Greek mythology. The 8th century BCE Greek poet Hesiod is credited with writing (or writing down) the creation story called the Five Ages of Man. This tale describes how humans fell getting further and further away from an ideal state (like paradise) and closer and closer to the toil and trouble of the world we live in. Mankind was created and destroyed repeatedly in mythological time, perhaps in an effort to get things right—at least for creator gods who were dissatisfied with their almost godlike, almost immortal human descendants, who had no reason to worship the gods.

Some of the Greek city-states had their own local origin stories about creation that pertained just to the people of that location. The women of Athens, for instance, were the descendants of Pandora.

Flood, Fire, Prometheus, and Pandora

Flood myths are universal. The Greeks had their own version of the great flood myth and the subsequent need to repopulate the Earth. The story of the Titans Deucalion and Pyrrha has several similarities to the one appearing in the Hebrew Old Testament of Noah's ark, including Deucalion being warned of the coming disaster and the construction of a great ship.

In Greek mythology, it was the Titan Prometheus brought fire to mankind and as a result enraged the king of the gods. Prometheus paid for his crime with a torture designed for an immortal: an eternal and painful occupation. To punish mankind, Zeus sent the evils of the world in a pretty package and loosed on that world by Pandora.

The Trojan War and Homer

The Trojan War provides the background for much of both Greek and Roman literature. Most of what we know of those terrific battles between Greeks and Trojans have been attributed to the 8th century Greek poet Homer. Homer was the most important of the Greek poets, but we do not know exactly who he was, nor whether he wrote both the Iliad and the Odyssey or even either of them.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey play a fundamental role in the mythology of both ancient Greece and Rome.

The Trojan War began when the Trojan prince Paris won a foot race and handed Aphrodite the prize, the Apple of Discord. With that action, he started the series of events that led to the destruction of his homeland Troy, which, in turn, led to the flight of Aeneas and the founding of Troy.

On the Greek side, the Trojan War led to disruption in the House of Atreus Horrible crimes were committed by the members of this family on each other, which included Agamemnon and Orestes. In the Greek dramatic festivals the tragedies frequently centered on one or another member of this royal house.

Heroes, Villains, and Family Tragedies

Known as Ulysses in the Roman version of the Odyssey, Odysseus was the most famous hero of the Trojan War who survived to return home. The war took 10 years and his return trip another 10, but Odysseus made it back safely to a family that was, oddly, still waiting for him.

His story makes up the second of the two works traditionally attributed to Homer, The Odyssey, which contains more fanciful encounters with mythological characters than the more war-story Iliad.

Another famous house that couldn't keep from violating major societal laws was the Theban royal house of which Oedipus, Cadmus, and Europa were important members who featured prominently in tragedy and legend.

Hercules (Heracles or Herakles) was immensely popular to the ancient Greeks and Romans and continues to be popular in the modern world. Herodotus found a Hercules figure in ancient Egypt. Hercules' behavior was not always admirable, but Hercules paid the price without complaint, defeating impossible odds, time and again. Hercules also rid the world of horrible evils.

All Hercules' tastes were superhuman, as befits the half-mortal (demigod) son of the god Zeus.